What Caused the SARS Epidemic?

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Update Date 08/05/2020 . 4 mins read
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It’s been 17 years since the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic captured the world’s attention. The disease was caused by a coronavirus that originated from China in late 2002, and shares a few key similarities to today’s coronavirus outbreak, which is caused by COVID-19.

What caused the SARS epidemic in 2003? How did the virus spread globally and infect thousands in less than a year? Due to its similarity with COVID-19, many people believe that learnings from the SARS outbreak would help the world deal better with the modern-day pandemic.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the first case of SARS was reported on November 16, 2002, at the Southern Chinese province of Guangdong. The virus, which the World Health Organization (WHO) identified as SARS-CoV, was believed to have originated from an unknown animal. 

What caused the SARS epidemic?

Carriers had unknowingly spread the virus across China, eventually, infecting neighboring countries, Hong Kong and Vietnam.

The index case, or the first documented case, involved a 64-year-old Chinese physician and medical professor named Liu Jianlun.

Prior to his trip to Hong Kong in February 2003, he had contracted SARS after being exposed to the virus in a medical facility.

He reportedly travelled to Hong Kong five days after the onset of symptoms.

He succumbed to the illness within two weeks, but not before infecting guests at the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong where he stayed.

what caused the sars epidemic

This highlights one of several risks that the medical community faced during the 2003 epidemic.

Initial carriers of the virus put health workers at risk. Health workers were susceptible to contracting and spreading the virus exponentially due to the nature of their work.

Some other factors contributed to the spread of the SARS epidemic: 

  • Health officials believed that the initial onset was due to atypical pneumonia, a type of pneumonia that was caused by another bacterium. This led to misidentifying the contagion risk of the patient.
  • There were cases of super-spreaders, such as Liu Jianlun, who infected other guests. They, in turn, spread the disease to more people upon returning to their home countries of Vietnam, Canada, and Singapore. 
  • Liu ws also believed to have infected several healthcare workers at Kwong Wah Hospital in Hong Kong, where he had been admitted and later succumbed to SARS.
  • The WHO also stated the possibility that the centers that had handled the deadly 2003 virus lacked the proper infectious disease control precautions, which led to hospital staff contracting and spreading the virus even further.
  • Consumption of infected exotic animal reservoirs, e.g. Chinese palm civets and horseshoe bats. Viruses isolated from these animals closely resemble the human SARS coronavirus and share similar mechanism for gaining entry into the body. This led to the policies on controlling possible animal intermediaries as preventive measures for re-emergence of SARS.

What we learned from the SARS epidemic

what caused the sars epidemic

It took a few months after the initial outbreak in Guangdong before China was able to share more information about the disease to the WHO. In March 2003, the WHO finally issued a global alert notifying the medical community regarding a severe form of pneumonia with unknown origins and issued several travel advisories around April 2003.

This highlights the importance of transparency during times of epidemics. Chinese officials reported the first known case of COVID-19 on December 31, 2019, amidst growing concern of underreported cases prior to the date.

It was July 2003 when the WHO declared the end of the SARS epidemic. To date, there are still no known vaccines for the virus. Fortunately, the virus has mostly been contained in laboratory environments, with a limited number of cases of infections.

What can we apply today based on the 2003 SARS epidemic?

The 2003 SARS epidemic resulted in more than 8,000 confirmed cases across 29 territories, with China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan reporting the highest number of  infections. Outside of Asia, Canada reported the most cases of infections due to a traveller who contracted the disease at the Metropole Hotel. 

COVID-19 has already surpassed these figures. As of April 2020, the WHO has reported more than 3 million confirmed cases worldwide, spread across 203 countries.

This presents a more pressing need to properly handle and contain the epidemic, on both the national  government and individual level.

Due to the similarity of the two viruses, there are a lot of things that we have learned from the SARS epidemic that we can apply in today’s COVID-19 epidemic:

  • SARS presented mostly the same symptoms as COVID-19. Its mode of transmission is similar. The SARS virus was transmitted via coughing or sneezing. From this, we can continue to  observe proper social distancing, and avoiding large crowds. Practicing good hygiene should also be observed.
  • The early months of the 2003 SARS epidemic was reported on extensively. But without  more info about its origins being shared, and the fact that there was still no cure at the time, it only caused panic and anxiety among the public. With the current COVID-19 situation, it’s important for governments and individuals  to be transparent, and to share only accurate information about the outbreak.
  • Majority of the transmissions from the 2003 SARS epidemic occurred within the healthcare setting. Today, we see a similar trend in the Philippines, with at least  2o doctors, and hundreds more infected, while caring for COVID-19 patients.

These deaths mean a  great loss. With healthcare workers on the frontline, they are put at risk.

The proper use and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers, as well as honest and transparent sharing of information can greatly help in protecting both the public and the healthcare workers.

Medical technology has grown leaps and bounds since the SARS epidemic. But this COVID-19 epidemic has shown us that we are still ill-prepared as a global community to deal with the current outbreak.

While we must continue to trust our governments and medical institutions in dealing with these outbreaks safely and efficiently, we must also practice sound judgment to avoid contributing to the spread of the epidemic.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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FROM EXPERT Dr. Mike-Kenneth Go Doratan, M.D.

What Caused the SARS Epidemic?

What caused the SARS epidemic? It’s been 17 years since the deadly SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic captured the world’s attention. The disease shares key similarities to COVID-19, a disease that is also caused by a coronavirus. Learn more about SARS and how it started, and how we can apply our learnings from history in addressing the current COVID-19 epidemic.

Written by Dr. Mike-Kenneth Go Doratan, M.D.
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